These days a chef can become as well known and idolized as an A-list actor. Celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, Susan Feniger and Thomas Keller are a foodie’s version of Brad Pitt or Nicole Kidman. We follow them, fantasize about their next restaurant, tear through articles about them and drool over their creative masterpieces for the palate.
They are artists and revolutionaries for the tummy. Few have ravaged the foodie scene quite as enthusiastically as Roy Choi. And while he remains humble and inspired, he churns out some of the top eateries in the Los Angeles area.
My first Roy Choi experience was, of course, with his famed food truck, Kogi. Kogi serves up Korean-Mexican fusion tacos with a funky kick. People have been known to wait for almost an hour (maybe more!) for these renowned tacos. The most popular taco, the short rib, has two corn tortillas weighed down with slaw, cilantro, salsa, onions and tender, delicious, meaty short rib. A tantalizing dance of flavors for your mouth, these tacos have won the hearts of foodies nationwide. But Roy Choi didn’t stop there. Since breaking into the food truck scene he has set up shop with more than one brick and mortar establishment. A-Frame, Chego and the brand new Sunny Spot have continued to wow their patrons in a way that only Choi can. His unique and explosive flavor combinations draw clientele looking for an awesome meal with an undeniable element of fun. I recently chatted with Roy “Papi Chulo” Choi about what it feels like to be the man behind the food and got a little insight into the inspiration, the work and the play.
Q:How do you and the staff bond?
I am papi and they are my niños. That’s just the way it is and has always been. I’m not a friend and I’m not a boss. I just drive the bus and for some reason the staff believe in me enough that they don’t ever get off.
Q:What was the biggest mistake you ever made in the kitchen?
I yelled at a cook and publicly embarrassed him and threatened him with his job when he did nothing wrong. I was a novice thinking I was a pro. I learned everything about who I am from that mistake.
Q:After a long day in the kitchen are you ever interested in cooking at home?
Sometimes, whether that fully comes to fruition is another story.
Q:Can we expect any more restaurants anytime soon?
Hopefully. I really want to open something on the East side of LA and in North Orange County.
Q:Which restaurant are you most proud of?
Chego is everything I truly am. It’s me as your friend saying, “what’s up, you hungry?”
Q:Other than your own restaurants, what is your favorite dining spot?
Beverly Soon Tofu House on Olympic.
Q:What/Who inspires you? How do you come up with those radical flavor combinations?
I am inspired by the people who eat our food and by the residents of Koreatown and Pico-Union. Young teenagers inspire me as well to keep it fresh. It was a whole lifetime in the making for these flavors. It’s my mural.
Q:How does it feel to know that you are considered a figurehead in the food truck revolution?
That ain’t me. Respect the others that came before me and the vendors that throw it down in East Los, Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, Fletcher, Glassel, Downtown, Huntington Park, South Gate, Pico-Union, Koreatown, East Hollywood, the Valley, and every paleta cart or duritos truck throughout the county. They are the soul of street food in LA.
The staggering lack of hubris in a man who has wooed the masses is befuddling. Amid the stirrings of countless publicity and crazed foodie fans Roy Choi has managed to stay grounded and level headed. He can regularly been seen at any of his restaurants watching the happenings, eating with the staff and laughing with the patrons.
As a regular restaurant client I can truly, without shame, say that his food is some of the best I’ve ever had. When flavors do what Roy makes them do, well shit, you can’t help but be inspired.
After Kogi I was lucky to try A-Frame. The closer than cozy ambiance is lifted by heavenly scents to a near dreamy experience. Between the excellent mixed drinks, the insanely addictive furikake kettle corn and the chicken cornbread salad you can reach nirvana. Skip the popular and disappointing Chu-Don’t-Know-Mang in lieu of the black pepper Thick Ass Ice Cream Sandwich and you have enjoyed the meal that can do no wrong.
Or, if you’re in a hurry, drop into Chego. The Korean rice bowls are so laden with tender, flavorful ingredients you practically forget the base is rice. While you wait for your bowl at the standing counter you can solo dance to the righteous jams blasting through the small space. For pork lovers the Chubby Pork Bowl is divine. Extra pork and you’re really asking for a foodgasm. And don’t you forget to mix that delicious over easy egg yolk into all the fresh toppings. A Chego bowl isn’t the same without that yellow, yolky goodness. Grab the sriracha chocolate bar and refrigerate it for the next day. Spicy mixes with sweet overnight and it makes the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. You won’t regret that. Trust me.
Even in its infancy, Sunny Spot is still putting smiles on the faces of every soul who’s lucky enough to be there. The borderline bizarre flavor combinations (can you say black bean, ginger and coconut soup?) make you question your own sanity as you shout for tummy joy in your seat. You can’t go wrong with the pineapple lollipops (in the style of the classic fruitista street vendors: on a stick with chili), the Muh-F*K*N Mofongo (think mashed potato style sweet and savory deliciousness), or the broiled hamachi collar (a succulent fish to remember). Even if you are feeling less adventurous there’s no need to pass up on Sunny Spot. Only Roy Choi can do up the classic burger in such a way that a couple will fight over the last bite. It’s basic and yet, somehow, too perfect for words. Believe me, one bite into this juicy, sweet, dripping-down-your-face burger and you will never be the same. Forever your life will be categorized as pre Sunny Spot burger and post. You have been warned. After that gastrointestinal journey you can end the meal with the Silver Goblet. The reasonably light serving of ginger coconut sorbet will allow you to regain some of your composure. At least you ended on a responsible note…
And don’t worry East Siders. Roy did say he was bringing some of this goodness to your side. For now, the West Side will just have to spend every evening on Overland or Washington eating ourselves into a happy food coma.